Mahindra dealers are still waiting
Indian pickup misses another target, but nobody's panicking
But truckmaker Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. has missed its third launch target. And no one at the Indian automaker or its U.S. sales affiliate -- usually eager to discuss the bold plan to be the first Indian automaker to sell products here -- can say when the trucks, which now are being field tested, will arrive.
Dealers such as Chip Bennett, a partner with Sarasota, Fla., Land Rover dealer Jack Urfer in a new $1 million showroom there, planned to launch Mahindra sales in February or March, the company's latest target. That was a revision of a December 2009 goal -- which was the date set after Mahindra missed its original target of mid-2009.
Critical issues such as service technician training and parts distribution remain murky. Retail financing is another key question, although one source familiar with the issue says a deal has been struck with a major U.S. financial institution to provide captive financing.
Despite all the uncertainty, dealers contacted around the country remain upbeat about the plan to retail a brawny, compact, four-cylinder, clean-diesel pickup that claims fuel economy nearly double that of its larger U.S. competitors.
"You will see Mahindra here this summer," Bennett vows. "I'm totally confident of that. And I think very soon we'll be hearing all the details."
'Taking a bit longer'
Global Vehicles Inc., the privately held Alpharetta, Ga., company that signed up to import the pickups three years ago, has sent prospective Mahindra dealers a copy of a newspaper article about the latest delay. The article, from Reuters in India this month, quotes Pawan Goenka, Mahindra's president for global automotive, saying vehicle testing "is taking a bit longer than what we anticipated."
He is quoted as saying that he expected to have a clearer idea by late March about when testing will be complete. After that, the company will submit its formal application for U.S. certification to the EPA. EPA approval, he said, typically takes about a month.
An EPA spokeswoman declined to say whether a month is a realistic time frame for certifying a new model. But even if the EPA does certify the pickup in a month, Mahindra's U.S. dealers couldn't start taking orders until May at the earliest. And it's not clear when the trucks would arrive from India.
Repeated efforts to speak with top officials at Mahindra and Global proved unsuccessful. A spokesman for Global Vehicles said CEO John Perez was out of the country and unavailable for comment. A request to speak with other Global Vehicles executives went unanswered.
Efforts to reach Perez -- a normally talkative businessman with a rich baritone that carries a slight trace of his childhood in Cuba -- drew a response from a U.S. representative of Mahindra & Mahindra in New York. The representative said that Goenka would prefer to handle discussions of the venture instead of Perez. But Goenka was not available for interviews.
"I guess I'm happy to wait," says Chicago Mahindra dealer Bob Hawkinson, taking a break from running his new Kia store. "It's going to be a good truck.
"But sooner or later, if they don't deliver, I'm going to have to ask for my money back."
Sources close to the project tell Automotive News that relations between Mahindra and Global Vehicles have been strained over the launch delays. Last year, Mahindra hired its own automotive executive to represent it in North America. Bob Masone, a veteran of Ford Motor Co. and Navistar, will oversee how the Mahindra brand is marketed in the United States beyond what Global does, according to the manufacturer.
“A launch date is very important to us, but not as important as getting our product right," said Pawan Goenka, Mahindra & Mahindra president for global automotive.
Photo credit: GLENN TRIEST
Speed vs. quality
The two key men involved in the venture, Perez and Goenka, personify two sets of conflicting pressures.
Both have stated that the truck will not go on sale in the United States until all parties are entirely satisfied with it. But Perez is eager to start U.S. sales and make good on a promise he made to nearly 150 dealers in 2006 that he would find them a vehicle to retail.
His original dealers had gotten on board for a fee of about $45,000. That franchise fee increased to $200,000 as interest in the truck grew, with dealers spending up to $50,000 more on signs.
Meanwhile, Goenka, a former General Motors engineering executive in Detroit, has been cautious in engineering and testing the vehicle. Goenka has said that it must undergo 100,000 miles of U.S. road tests before he would seek EPA approval to sell the truck here.
The EPA's certification is based on engine emission levels. New vehicles also must meet safety requirements monitored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But in that case, automakers simply assure NHTSA prior to sale that their vehicles meet U.S. requirements.
A big step for Mahindra
Entering the United States is a giant step for Mahindra, an automaker barely known outside southern Asia. Mahindra's primary business in motor vehicles until recently has been tractors, military vehicles and commercial vehicles.
It is now seeing export acceptance for its Scorpio SUV and other more stylish vehicles. According to press reports, it also is on the verge of a joint venture with Renault in India.
Mahindra's Indian rival, Tata Sons Ltd., also has aspirations for selling vehicles in the United States. Chairman Ratan Tata has said that he will introduce a U.S.-engineered version of the inexpensive Tata Nano here in "three to four years." Tata has not disclosed retail plans.
Speaking with Automotive News last year, Goenka said Mahindra's entry into the United States was important -- but not the company's most important current project. He said only about 6 or 7 percent of Mahindra's total global engineering force of 1,000 was working on the U.S. entry.
"We also have three new vehicle platforms we're working on right now and just completed a fourth," Goenka said. He said that entering the United States would cost half as much as developing a new vehicle platform.
More important, he said, was doing it correctly: "A launch date is very important to us, but not as important as getting our product right."
For Perez and many of his dealers, the wait has been exceptionally long. Almost half of the current group of 300 to 350 Mahindra dealers were on board with Perez long before Perez linked up with Mahindra.
In the mid-1990s, Perez sought to import a small military SUV called the Aro from Romania, dubbed the Cross Lander for the United States. That venture ran aground over political issues in 2006 after 12 years of effort, just as the EPA was certifying it for U.S. sale. Perez promised dealers that if they stuck with him, he would find them another vehicle to import.
All the key elements
In 2007, Cross Lander USA was reborn as Global Vehicles with a plan to bring in the Mahindra pickup. Perez had discovered one of the few automakers that had everything a U.S. importer needed:
-- It was not already marketing vehicles in the United States.
-- It was willing to use an independent distributor.
-- It was unaffiliated with any other auto company selling here.
-- It was knowledgeable about U.S. sales and distribution customs through other products -- in this case, its tractors.
-- And it was producing plausible products for U.S. showrooms, including the pickup truck and the Scorpio SUV.
The idea of a small diesel truck appealed to many in 2007. Fuel efficiency was becoming a hot button for consumers, and Perez touted the truck as having the working performance of a V-6 Dodge Ram. The Mahindra truck is 206.7 inches long, about 2 inches shorter than the base Ram 1500.
Mahindra's new four-cylinder, clean-diesel engine promises 27 to 30 mpg -- although the figures are not official -- compared with a 14 city/20 highway mpg rating for a 2010 V-6 Ram. Dealers believe the lure will be powerful for contractors.
Global's first problem was significant: U.S. dealers who went to see the Mahindra pickup as it existed in 2007 balked at its quality.
Dealers gave Perez a list of changes they wanted. Body panels needed to feel more durable. Fit and finish would have to be improved. The seats needed beefing up; the engine was underpowered, and the truck lacked U.S. safety features such as airbags.
With product consultants from J.D. Power and Associates guiding him, Perez gave Mahindra a list of 196 changes.
Testing the new truck
That created Global's second significant problem: Because the truck would be changed substantially, Goenka informed Perez the truck must undergo long-term testing. Last summer, a fleet of re-engineered Mahindra pickups arrived in the United States and began months of 24-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week real-life testing.
Perez believed that process would be sewn up in time for a late 2009 launch. Late 2009 came and went.
Several dealers say they have been encouraged in recent months as Global Vehicles officials stepped up communications. Dealers say they are getting weekly phone calls, e-mails and faxes from the importer.
In Little Rock, Ark., independent retailer Jerry May renovated his used-car shop to retail Mahindra. He says he is content to wait.
"Mahindra is a good company, and they're not going to send over their vehicle until they know it's ready," May says. "But you do need a lot of patience to go through something like this."
Steve Taylor, a Cadillac-Hyundai-Kia dealer in Toledo, Ohio, agrees that "we've been waiting a long time."
Taylor has acquired a building to serve as his Mahindra dealership in Toledo. For now he's using the empty shop to store cars waiting for collision repairs.
"Mahindra will come," he says confidently.
"But I'm fortunate that it wasn't my only franchise."
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